The Surprising Health Benefits of Your Favorite Holiday Spices

December 24, 2014    BY Jackie Dobrinska

Nothing says the holidays like food. As celebrations carry us from Thanksgiving to the New Year, we find great pleasure in traditional dishes that delight the senses. And spices are often the key ingredients. However, spices do more than just add aroma and flavor. They are powerful agents for good health.

The wisdom of proper spicing makes many foods “pleasant to the stomach,” which the Bhagavad Gita says “enhances clarity (sattva), that subtle aspect that brings about the light of wisdom.”

Students of yoga and ayurveda know that spices improve our ability to break down and assimilate food. We drink tea made from cumin, coriander, and fennel to promote the digestive fire, or add black pepper to foods that might otherwise weigh us down. The wisdom of proper spicing makes many foods “pleasant to the stomach,” which the Bhagavad Gita says “enhances clarity (sattva), that subtle aspect that brings about the light of wisdom.” 

Four holiday spices have similar actions. Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger are ancient digestive aids, which were also used to preserve food before refrigeration. While our ancestors did utilize them for their health benefits, the history of these spices is fairly complex. They were foundational to what was once the world's biggest trade industry—the spice trade, which began over 4,000 years ago. Believe it or not, that pinch of powder in your cookie once helped build vast empires, discover new worlds, and cross-pollinate cultures.

While these innocent-looking spices may no longer be worth their weight in jewels and gold, they still provide great fortune through better health. This holiday season, as you reach for your spice rack, be mindful of the treasures it holds.


Nutmeg powder comes from the kernel of a fruit from a tropical evergreen tree. The outer covering is turned into another spice called mace, and the inner “nut” is used to flavor creamy desserts and pies. It has a heating, pungent quality, which helps move stagnant energy. It is also sweet, which supports grounding.

Nutmeg is well known as a powerful relaxant and sleep aid. Those who can’t fall asleep (sleep onset insomnia) can take a small dose 4 to 6 hours before bed. Those who wake in the night and can’t fall back asleep (sleep maintenance insomnia) can take a small dose right before bed. Be careful with the amount (stick with 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon). As little as one teaspoon can create unpleasant side effects due to the spice’s psychotropic properties. Also, consider buying the nut itself and grating it rather than storing the powder, as this will help preserve the health benefits of the volatile oils.


An important ingredient for gingerbread and fruitcakes, cloves are the dried, unopened flower buds from an evergreen tree. At one time cloves had such a high value they were offered as bonuses to dock workers in London.

Cloves are hot and pungent to the taste, which stimulates the digestive system. Folk herbalists use them to reduce nausea and vomiting, and their mild anesthetic, antiseptic, and antimicrobial properties make them the go-to spice for toothaches. Just grind a few cloves between your teeth and hold next to the affected area for immediate relief. Caution: do not swallow this amount or use as a long-term solution as adverse side-effects could result from both.

Studies also indicate that cloves promote the flow of lymph fluid, reduce pain associated with rheumatism and arthritis, and lower triglycerides and blood sugar levels. 


Cinnamon is the inner bark of evergreen trees native to India, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. Many species exist, and while Cassia cinnamon is most commonly used, the smoother Ceylon cinnamon is best utilized for its health benefits.

Cinnamon is heating, drying, and astringent. It stimulates digestion and is used to treat colic, nausea, vomiting, and indigestion. It also kills many disease-causing viruses and fungi. Thanks to its astringent properties, it can be used to relieve diarrhea and for stemming bleeding in cuts, nosebleeds, and even heavy menstruation.

Today, studies show that cinnamon can help people with diabetes metabolize sugar better, and to lower cholesterol to improve heart health.

As far back as 2700 BCE, the Chinese used cinnamon for common colds, upper-respiratory congestion, and to invigorate the blood and warm the body. The ancient Egyptians included it in their embalming recipe, in part because of its antifungal and antibacterial properties. Today, studies show that cinnamon can help people with diabetes metabolize sugar better, and to lower cholesterol to improve heart health.


Ginger is a tan, knobby root with a thick skin. It’s rich, warming, and almost biting flavor is used in both sweet and savory dishes around the world.

Known as the “universal medicine,” this powerful plant can be used by almost anyone to treat a variety of complaints. Ginger supports the digestive system—in part by stimulating the appetite. It also protects the liver and digestive tract from toxins; reduces the symptoms of heartburn; and kills microorganisms and parasites, which is why it is traditionally served with the raw fish of sushi.

As a cardiovascular tonic, ginger stimulates circulation, prevents arterial plaque, and significantly lowers blood cholesterol. Historically, it has been used for boosting immunity, reducing inflammation, relieving migraines, alleviating the nausea associated with morning and motion sickness, and even treating muscle sprains when used externally.

Utilize fresh ginger from the store rather than candied or dried ginger (though the latter can be substituted in a pinch).

While your familiarity with these four spices may be mostly thanks to their presence in your holiday eggnog or spiced wine, they are powerful remedies in their own right. When using them as remedies, it's best to take them without the added sugar of holiday treats and before the high temperatures of baking destroy the medicinal qualities.

But whichever way you enjoy these spices, may the many gifts of the season bring you both health and wealth!

Always consult your primary health care provider when working with herbs, as some herbs may interact with medications or be contraindicated for certain conditions. The information included in this article on the structure and functional uses of herbs is based on historical use and personal experience. It has not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.


Cinnamon on Blood Sugar

  1. Crawford P. Effectiveness of cinnamon for lowering hemoglobin A1C in patients with type 2 diabetes: A randomized, controlled trial. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. 2009;22:507.
  2. Vafa M, et al. Effects of cinnamon consumption on glycemic status, lipid profile and body composition in type 2 diabetic patients. International Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2012;3:531.
  3. Cassia cinnamon. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. Accessed Jan. 30, 2013.
  4. Ranasinghe P, et al. Efficacy and safety of 'true' cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) as a pharmaceutical agent in diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetic Medicine. 2012;29:1480.
  5. Leach MJ, et al. Cinnamon for diabetes mellitus. Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews. Accessed Dec. 10, 2012.
  6. Akilen R, et al. Cinnamon in glycaemic control: Systematic review and meta analysis. Clinical Nutrition. 2012;31:609.

Cinnamon on Cholesterol and Heart Health 

  1. Letinsky D, et al. Is cinnamon safe and effective for treating lipid disorders? The Journal of Family Practice. 2011;60:43.
  2. Cassia cinnamon. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. Accessed Oct. 8, 2012.
  3. Vafa M, et al. Effects of cinnamon consumption on glycemic status, lipid profile and body composition in type 2 diabetic patients. International Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2012;3:531.
  4. Ulbricht C, et al. An evidence-based systematic review of cinnamon (Cinnamomum spp.) by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration. Journal of Dietary Supplements. 2011;8:378.
  5. Grundy SM, et al. Implications of recent clinical trials for the National Cholesterol Education Program Adult Treatment Panel III Guidelines. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Accessed Oct. 8, 2012.
  6. Prevention and treatment of high cholesterol. American Heart Association. Accessed Oct. 8, 2012.

Jackie Dobrinska
For almost 10 years, Jackie has apprenticed with world-renowned leaders in mind-body health. She teaches simple tools for transformation - including yoga, nutrition and herbs - at universities, hospitals, yoga studios, businesses and conferences around the Southeast. As an author and teacher, her passion is to empower others on their journey of self-discovery, encouraging deep nourishment, self-love, and connecting to an authentic truth that brings fulfillment and an inner radiance. For more... Read more>>